Vintage Cable Box: Trading Places

“I had the most absurd nightmare. I was poor and no one liked me. I lost my job, I lost my house, Penelope hated me and it was all because of this terrible, awful Negro.”

Trading Places, 1983 (Dan Aykroyd), Paramount Pictures

Eddie Murphy’s Billy Ray Valentine lives on his wits. He masquerades as a homeless amputee Vietnam vet. He owes money all over town, and he boasts of limousines, “bitches”, and an unsurpassed knowledge of Karate. He proves to be the perfect, unknowing subject of a dual experiment initiated by the evil multi-millionaire Duke Brothers, Randolph (Ralph Bellamy) and Mortimer (Don Ameche). The Duke Brothers want to know if a man’s success, personal and financial, is largely dependent on his upbringing or the lifestyle he enjoys – in other words, heredity or environment. They (with the help of unscrupulous security specialist Clarence Beeks), destroy top employee, Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd), his reputation, and his finances, and put him on the street. They give Valentine Winthorpe’s life, his job, and his luxurious Philadelphia townhouse.

Aykroyd is arrested for possession of PCP (planted on him by corrupt cop Frank Oz!), his credit cards are confiscated and his assets repossessed by the bank.  He is taken in by kindly hooker, Ophelia (Jamie Lee Curtis), who helps get him back on his feet provided he reimburses her.  Meanwhile, Valentine thrives in his new position at the Duke Brothers’ financial firm.  He becomes the toast of the business world, while Aykroyd has to fend for himself for the first time in his life.  He sells his expensive Roche Vouceau watch to a pawnbroker for $50, buys a gun and, in a drunken stupor, tries to frame Valentine.

For his part, Valentine stumbles onto the Dukes’ “science experiment” and the modest wager (one fucking dollar!) between the brothers.  Lost in all of this is the ultimate outcome.  Valentine proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that a man can succeed in the right climate if he has business acumen.  Winthorpe can survive in an alien environment when he learns the acquired wisdom of compromise.  Putting their heads together, Aykroyd and Murphy concoct a scheme to supply a false crop report to the Dukes, who have retained the continued service of Beeks (an appropriately evil Paul Gleason) for a little bit of their own insider knowledge as they plan to corner the market in frozen orange juice futures.

Director John Landis’ best-reviewed film, from a clever (probably too clever for it’s own good) script by Timothy Harris and Herschel Weingrod; some 33 years on, it still hits hard, but with a positive message – the people at the top will never understand the problems of the poor or disenfranchised, but if they care, there might just be a little hope on the horizon.  Note Eddie Murphy’s disposition throughout the movie.  He seems happy-go-lucky, but always suspicious – a character-beat prevalent in the movies of Preston Sturges, the godfather of the screwball comedy.  Dan Aykroyd’s character, once blissfully ignorant, has to live on the charity of decent, kind-hearted people; people he would never acknowledge in his former life as a master of the universe.  He discovers the downtrodden; particularly the exceptional Ophelia, can also have a head for business in addition to navigating their lives with very few resources.

Trading Places was a rare (for the time) literate comedy that became a box-office hit.  By telling the story from both sides of the financial (and cultural) divide, we are privy to the trappings of screwball comedy as viewed from a modern sensibility with fresh eyes.  Landis makes good use of distinctive Philadelphia locales.  The audience develops a working knowledge of how the Stock Market works and what brokers do (which seems more depressing to me than anything else), and how that system can be easily manipulated.  It’s quite frightening actually.  So frightening, in fact, that “The Eddie Murphy Rule” came to pass in 2010 when the Commodity Futures Trading Commission approved a ban of “misappropriated government information to trade in commodity markets.”  Wow.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

A Christmas Music Collection

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Mark and I want to wish all of our podcast listeners and Facebook followers a very Happy and Safe Holidays.
Our one holiday wish is to spend the holidays with everyone and share a spiked eggnog while sitting in front of your Christmas tree or, as applicable, share a Manischewitz Sangria Martini (which sounds delicious: while sitting around the Menorah.
We hope you will take us into your home this holiday weekend as we present to you a special episode devoted to some off-the-beaten-track holiday music (all focused on the Christmas holidays – sorry Jews!).
You will not hear any of * this * Christmas music playing in your local Walmart while you do your holiday shopping.
This playlist covers the entire musical spectrum of the holidays: blues; disco; funk; pop; the weird, the unclassifiable. And, as an extra special treat, Lorne Greene joins the show to tell several (!) stories that teach us all the true Spirit of Christmas. He also sings (!!) a song about Christmas too.
We hope you answer our holiday wish by downloading the episode and give it a listen as you sip your (hopefully very potent) holiday drink.

Vintage Cable Box: A Christmas Story

“Aunt Clara had for years labored under the delusion that I was not only perpetually 4 years old, but also a girl.”

A Christmas Story, 1983 (Peter Billingsley), MGM/UA

It used to be that you would unknowingly discover a film, and with such an innocuous title as A Christmas Story, you’d likely flip to the next channel. Very little money was spent on marketing movies already past their prime release dates in theaters. Cable television channels would advertise movies making their broadcast premieres. You might find occasional print advertisements in TV Guide, but more often than not, movies would disappear down a hole, until they were discovered many years later. It would take years to see a movie released to videotape, so word-of-mouth was often all a filmmaker could depend on to get his or her movie seen.

A Christmas Story was not a critical and only a marginal box-office success upon initial release, grossing $19 million against a $3 million budget, but it was purchased by Ted Turner when he acquired MGM/UA’s back-catalog and holdings in 1985. Revisionist film critics now consider it a modern-day classic, and marathon showings of the movie dominate basic cable to this day. Watching the movie non-stop last Christmas, I was struck by how hypnotic the whole enterprise can be. The movie is a string of episodes and those episodes are in constant rotation. It’s like watching the old “yule log” presentations on Channel 11 – it just keeps going … and going … and going. Thanks to digital archivists like Rolando Pujol, that yule log has thankfully returned to channel 11.

So it’s the 8th of September and we’re in the middle of another heatwave here in New York, and I am sweating, but I try to conjure up images of snow and bitter cold and Flick’s tongue frozen to a pole and I’m almost there. I like Christmas. My daughter was born on Christmas Day, and while it may be a drag for her, it’s easy for her mother and me to put together a mega-birthday celebration complete with a tree and some lights, a cake, and a mountain of gifts. We all take a day off from being jerks, mostly because we’ve got a nice big meal and presents waiting for us when we get home. Humanity sucks in general, but for one day out of the year, we don’t suck as much.

Based on a collection of stories and anecdotes by Jean Shepherd, A Christmas Story introduces Ralphie (a brilliant Peter Billingsley), a nine-year-old with a simple request.  All he wants is a Red Ryder BB gun (with a compass in the the stock, and a sundial).  He gets the easy, infuriating brush-off: “you’ll shoot your eye out” over and over from everybody he makes this request to, including a mean-spirited department store Santa Claus.  The “episodes” or anecdotes in the movie include a hideous yet indescribably beautiful lamp shaped like a leg Ralphie’s dad (Darren McGavin) wins in a contest, the hillbilly Bumpus dogs that terrorize McGavin every chance they get, the bullies Farkus (with his maniacal laugh) and Dill (the toadie), the triple-dog-dare, the bunny suit (the pink nightmare), the furnace, the curse word, and the aforementioned adventure with a frozen pole.  In the end, Ralphie gets what he wants.  Even if you haven’t seen the movie, you can still guess what happens.

It’s interesting to me that family movies were not as big in those days as they are today.  I only remember a few of them.  In fact, family movies are all Hollywood has to depend on to put keesters in the seats.  Movies based on toys, video games, and cartoon products are the movies that make the big bucks, because they are made (seemingly) for the whole family.  In 1983, it was a different story.  Most of the money was being made from sex comedies and horror movies.  “Family”-oriented movies were relegated to made-for-television status.  Disney had suffered major financial overhauls due to their creation of a cable television channel, and they were not making many animated features.

Jean Shepherd’s narration is quaint. He sounds like he is describing the peculiar activities and rituals of the human race to aliens from other planets. Of course, the characters (especially those from Ralphie’s family) are quite familiar to us. His dad is well-meaning, somewhat temperamental, and often wrong. His mother (played by adorable Melinda Dillon) is the voice of reason, and a good sport to put up with her husband’s antics. His little brother, Randy, is an idiot and an anorexic in potentia. The bullies are monsters. I never understood why two kids (one of them a half-pint) could scare four moderately-sized kids so much they had to run in opposite directions.

So leave it to Bob Clark, of all people, to craft a sweet and wonderful holiday movie for children and adults to enjoy. He had just finished Porky’s 2: The Next Day and did a complete about-face with A Christmas Story. I’ve always been impressed with directors who try to broaden their horizons by working in multiple genres. In addition to the Porky’s movies, Bob Clark made horror movies (Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things), thrillers (Murder By Decree), and social commentary (Turk 182). He also made some stinkers, but his body of work more than made up for it. He died in 2007.

I’ve had several conversations with some very interesting people over the last few weeks with regard to their respective roles in the concept (not the holiday with religious implications) of Christmas.  I came to the conclusion that Santa, that Christmas is for everybody.  It’s mainly for children.  Christmas is a child’s holiday.  It’s about presents and trees, and ornaments, and decorations.  It’s about a delicious meal.  It’s about tipping your hat on a cold night to a stranger.  Christmas is for everyone.

Merry Christmas Everybody!

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month. Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

WGC – A Christmas They Never Forgot

Episode 5 – A Christmas They Never Forgot



Christopher Hasler and Mark Jeacoma are joined by Chris Cooling to discuss the classic “A Christmas They Never Forgot” episode!

An Interview with Tim Lapetino

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Tim Lapetino, author of The Art of Atari decided to return the 456 calls we made to his office and finally agreed to come onto our podcast if we would stop bothering him….and it worked!  Mark and Tim discuss collections, inspirations for the book and in general just have an cool and relaxed conversation about America’s favorite gaming company, ATARI!

I recommend each and every one of you go buy The Art of Atari – the book is a remarkable collection of Atari memories and the price is amazing!

I would like to thank the one and the only Weird Paul Petroskey for letting me use his “Don’t Break my Atari” song which is another favorite of mine.  You should really check out Weird Paul on Youtube – he is, after all, the FIRST Video Blogger (going back to the 1980’s!)

“Octopussy, 1983”

“Mr. Bond is indeed of a very rare breed… soon to be made extinct.”

Octopussy, 1983 (Roger Moore), United Artists

Graphic and intense violence was crucial to mid 1970s-early ’80s action films, and Roger Moore’s final three James Bond films were no exception. These were cranked up; shot and edited in the fashion of American action and exploitation cinema, and reflecting new sensibilities in younger audiences at the time. I disagree with the commonplace notions that the Moore series of films playing this character were not as riveting as the Connery series, because of Moore’s British upbringing. His predecessor, Sean Connery, being Scottish, exuded a different kind of magnetism and charisma, but where Connery was often brutal in the punishment he dealt his enemies, Moore was almost bloodless in his actions (though there is a nifty head-shot in this movie), and maintained a stiff, British upper-lip. Most Bond fans in my age bracket prefer Moore over Connery for the very simple reason that they (as I) grew up watching Moore’s cycle of espionage thrillers.

In a humorous pre-credits sequence, Bond almost single-handedly deposes a Castro-like despot with the help of a pretty lady and a personal jet fighter.  After his mission is accomplished, he stops the jet at a gas station on a lonely dirt road.  He tells the owner to “fill ‘er up!”  Cute.  Next we move into the montage of naked ladies and guns set to Rita Coolidge’s theme song, All Time High (the lyrics to which I have never forgotten).  I’ve always enjoyed the fact that “Cubby” Broccoli put the majority of his crew credits at the beginning of his Eon Productions Bond films even after an unofficial agreement between motion picture studios (circa 1979) put into practice to relegate those credits to the end of the picture.  It’s sort of a tip of the hat to the people that work hard on these films.

In pre-Glasnost times, evil general Orlov wants more power and influence.  In Soviet Russia, pajamas wear YOU!  Orlov wants to expand the hypothetical Soviet Empire, and his superiors think he’s mad.  The art direction and cinematography of this scene recalls Doctor Strangelove’s war room.  SIS Agent 009 (dressed in a clown suit) is found dead with a Fabergé egg in his possession.  The egg turns out to be fake, but Bond finds the real egg, plants a bug in it for his latest conquest, Magda, to steal and return to the evil Kamal Khan (an appropriately sleazy, eyeball-eating Louis Jourdan – yuck!).  Bond learns that Orlov has been working with Khan, selling “priceless” fake Russian treasures (the aforementioned egg) and smuggling the genuine articles across the Iron Curtain by way of a bizarre woman (Maud Adams as “Octopussy”, in her second Bond film) with a serious octopus fetish.  When I say serious, I mean serious.  Her bed looks like an octopus.  Her tables look like assorted octopi.  Her curtains … well, you get the point.  She’s an extremely beautiful, fabulously wealthy smuggler (and circus owner) with a private army of hotties.  It takes a while, but Jimmy finally sets his sights on her.

Orlov’s true scheme is to smuggle a nuclear warhead by train to a United States Air Force Base in West Germany (remember West Germany, kids?), where it will detonate in the middle of one of Octopussy’s circus shows.  Orlov’s ultimate goal is to create destabilization and doubt in neighboring nations where he can easily take control and thus, expand the Soviet empire.  Ultimately, Bond masquerades as a clown (like Agent 009), and removes the detonator before the warhead can explode and spoil a decent circus.  I secretly hoped the bomb would go off, because I have a (admittedly irrational) fear/hatred of clowns, but the good guys must prevail.  The baddest of the bad, Jourdan and his evil (again with the evil!) henchman abscond with Octopussy and escape in a small aircraft, but not before Bond (or his incredibly obvious stunt double anyway) can jump on the roof and mess with their engines, and rescue the damsel.

“It’s all in the wrist.”

This is truly a fun movie with lots of action (expertly directed by John Glen, who helmed five Bond movies).  Glen started on the Bond series as an editor, cutting On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in 1969.  The set pieces are thrilling, and I noted infrequent use of blue screen as most of the visual effects were shot in-camera.  Octopussy would be followed by Moore ‘s last Bond film, A View to a Kill in 1985, and then Timothy Dalton would take over the role for two movies.  There is an interesting bit of trivia here in that Dalton (along with James Brolin) were suggested to replace Moore in Octopussy when his contract was up.  Later in 1983, Sean Connery appeared in the non-canon Bond film, Never Say Never Again, directed by Irvin Kershner.  When Never Say Never Again (with Connery) was announced, the producers renegotiated with Moore to keep him on in direct competition with that film.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.